Recovery is Not Linear

Illustration by Ella Byworth for

When I was twelve years old, I was slammed with intense anxiety, my first boyfriend, the throes of puberty, and relentless body issues. This combination left me with a severe eating disorder. Sixth grade was drawing to a close, and summer provided the perfect opportunity to starve myself.

Every morning when I woke up, I lifted up my shirt and inspected my hip bones, relishing in the feel of my skin clinging to the bone. I went into the bathroom and stood with my ankles together, staring at my thighs, trying to find even a hint of a gap. I remember the first time I saw one. Relief and pride flooded me, followed by an immediate need for ​more. I needed it bigger. I needed to be smaller.

I would try my hardest to consume nothing but plain green tea until dinner, then eat the bare minimum as to not alert my parents. I scarcely left my room, instead laying flat on my bed, pushing on my stomach because I read somewhere that it makes you feel more full, and staring at myself in the mirror until I wanted to scream. I spent hours huddled in my closet, my computer open, staring hungrily at images of sickly, underweight girls with tiny thighs and sharp hip bones, gaping collarbones, and arms around which you could wrap your fingers. I fell asleep dreaming of slicing the fat from my thighs, my hips, my stomach. I constantly researched tips to conceal my increasing state of starvation, and did my best to deflect concerned questions from my parents.

However, I was not as sneaky as I believed, and after three months and an investigation into my laptop’s search history my parents found a therapist for me. I hated her. She was a family therapist, meaning she demanded to see my entire family for our appointments, and anything I told her was shared with my parents. She seemed to be there more to teach my parents how to manage my restriction than to actually serve as a sanctuary for myself. About a month after I started seeing her, I went to my doctor and was promptly told I was medically unstable and must go to the hospital immediately.

Eating disorders affect at least thirty million people in the U.S. and are the third most common chronic illness in adolescents. With treatment, 60% of those sufferers will make a full recovery, but only one-third will seek treatment of their own initiative. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and every 62 minutes someone dies of an eating disorder.

Today, eating disorders are quickly becoming more and more prevalent, and 50-80% of the risk of an eating disorder is genetic. But diet culture and societal pressures remain enormous contributors. The average U.S. woman is 5’4” and weighs 165 pounds, but the average Miss America winner is 5’7” and weighs 121 pounds. Because of this heinous cultural ideal, there has been a significant rise in cases of anorexia in young women 15-19 every decade since the 1930s, and cases of bulimia in 10-39-year-old women ​tripled between 1988 and 1993. In fact, four out of ten individuals have personally experienced an eating disorder or know someone who has.

I was at Stanford Hospital for four days. Here I watched hours of TV, was woken at five every morning for my weight, heart rate, and blood pressure, and attended multiple group therapy sessions. Finally, I was permitted to go home, where absolutely nothing changed. Not my eating habits, not my mindset, nothing. Every meal was a battle: me against my parents.

Two months later, I started at a new school, which was an entirely new spiral of awfulness. The second day, one of my friends looked me up and down and complimented my weight loss. I smiled widely and brightly thanked her, swallowing the urge to cry.

Eventually, my parents were too worried to allow me to decline steadily downwards. They contacted a treatment facility called the Lotus Collaborative and set up a consultation. I was adamant that I would not go. They made me. I met with the head of the program for about an hour, and she told my parents that at the very least I needed to be in their all-day program, from 11:45 AM to 8 PM every single day. I was distraught and threw multiple fits, and finally my parents conceded. They informed me that if I agreed to eat, I wouldn’t have to go. I agreed. I ate.

For about four months anyways. At the beginning of the second semester, my middle school took the height and weight of its students. I had not been permitted to see my weight since I was diagnosed, and my shaky resolve to eat was completely obliterated. I came home from school and wouldn’t touch my food. My concerned mother asked me multiple times what was going on, until haltingly I told her. Furious, she called the school and berated the principal for a good fifteen minutes. Then, she tried to reason with me. The problem, however, was that the person that she knew was not present. It was still me, but I was enveloped completely by the hard, inflexible shell of my eating disorder. I refused to eat.

Within three weeks, I met once more with the Lotus Collaborative, and this time I was admitted. My parents compromised, and I was to attend their IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) care, which ran from 3:45 to 8 PM. I vividly remember my first moments there. The other clients were in a group session, and I arrived a few minutes late. I was instructed to introduce myself, which I barely managed to do without crying. I spent that day in an anxiety-induced haze.

After a month of that, my Lotus-appointed therapist rightfully saw no improvement and told my parents that I either needed to step up to PHP (Partial Hospitalization Program) from 11:45 AM to 8 PM, or I would need to go to residential care, where I would live at a facility full time. They chose the PHP, and I was informed I would need to leave school. I cried for three hours.

During my first two months of PHP I ate only while I was at Lotus. If you refused a meal, you needed to drink a meal-replacement shake called Ensure. If you refused the Ensure, you would get a mark on your chart. Enough marks and your level of care was increased. So, I ate only while at Lotus. I attended a lot of group therapy (three groups a day), and as a result forged deep bonds with the other clients, all of whom were older than me. Soon, Lotus became my sanctuary and simultaneously, my prison.

In mid-May of 2017, my hard shell began to crack. I was learning the skills I needed to fight back. I still detested the way my body looked, but maybe a little less. I began to eat, and my therapist deemed me ready to step down to IOP in June. I was enthralled. I had been asking for this for months, and now finally I had it within my grasp. I had learned to communicate with others, and I had learned to be vulnerable. I had learned how to see my body through fresh eyes. I began to compose my own meals; I began to become comfortable in my body.

On August 29th, 2017, six months after starting and a year after being diagnosed, I graduated the Lotus Collaborative Eating Disorder Treatment Facility. I composed a peace treaty with my body and my eating disorder, and read it in front of all the clients, staff, and my parents. I cried the entire way through. I cried for the little girl who believed she would rather die than weigh over a hundred pounds. I cried because I had grown to think of Lotus as my second home, as my sanctuary. I cried because I was proud. I was proud that I had come so far, proud that I had persevered for so long.

Recently, I found one of my old diaries. Thumbing through the pages, I stumbled upon several passages I had written while I was deep in the throes of my eating disorder.

“I’m definitely losing weight. I can see it. I was bad today though. I binged. So, I am fasting for the next two days. Then, on the third day, I’m only eating at dinner. That’s my plan: only eat at dinner. My hip bones are prominent and I ​almost​ have a thigh gap! Yay!”

“I’m not saying anorexic because I ​know ​I’m not anorexic. Girls with anorexia are skinny and they worry about food all the time. They’re also never hungry. I’m not anorexic because I’m always ​hungry.”

“Every time I eat, I can ​feel the fat on my body. It’s disgusting and makes me want to vomit. I am seeing the doctor, I think next week? She’s going to see if I’m physically healthy but I’m not. How can a fat girl be healthy?”

Looking back on these words makes me sad. Sad for the person that I once was, and the beliefs that she held. Sad that I hated myself and my body ​so much that I turned to starvation. I read these entries and I want to take my younger self in my arms and whisper in her ear that she is so much more than her weight. I want to stroke her hair and hold her while she cries and tell her that everything she is so fixated on—thigh gaps, bikini bridges, concave stomachs, prominent collar bones, the ability to see every single rib—means absolutely nothing. That the girls that she sees in those pictures are not okay, that they are sick and so is she. That the reason she is still unable to exercise for over half an hour without needing to lie down, ​nearly three years later, is because she is destroying her body, bite by refused bite.

I have lived with an eating disorder for two years and nine months, and I am still not recovered. Lately, my anxiety levels have risen to the point that I am skipping meals, and now, most food makes me physically nauseous if I taste it, smell it, even think of consuming it.

My therapist tells me it’s part of the disorder, that my hunger and fullness cues have been thrown out of whack by my restriction, that I just need to power through it and swallow each bite, one at a time. But ​damn it,​ it is so hard. It is ​still​ so hard to see my body in the mirror, to prepare my own meals, to write these words without crying, to look down at the spiderwebs of stretch marks across my hips and thighs without hating them with everything I have, to silence that voice in my head that is constantly shrieking in my ear that I am not pretty enough, smart enough, funny enough, popular enough, thin enough, thin enough, ​thin enough.

Recovery is not linear. It’s a phrase they repeated over and over again at Lotus, a phrase I painted in thick black letters and taped to my wall, a phrase I tell myself every day. Recovery is not linear. Recovery is not linear. So bite by bite, I power through, fighting the nausea, telling the voice in my head to shut up, forcing myself to eat my food.

“You need food to live, Nike, and just because you tell yourself you will be the one person who will be okay doesn’t mean it’s true,” I tell myself. “You will go back to Lotus, Nike. Is that what you want? You will have to repeat ninth grade, and just because you think it won’t happen doesn’t mean it won’t.”

“You are not exempt from everything terrible in this world, and just because you tell yourself that you are does not mean that it’s true.”

“You are not immune to the horrible consequences of starvation, so shut up and eat your damn food.”

Recovery is not linear—nothing really is. Over and over again, I find myself at what I think is the finish line but I’ve been running in circles. I think I’m still in the middle.

By Nike Cholden

1 comment

  1. Wow! Powerful and profound. Praying for your continued recovery.